The year is 1989, the place is Merion Golf Club and the glittering field includes Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Allen Doyle and Jay Sigel.
Chris Patton, the self-deprecating country boy with the home-made swing from South Carolina, brushed them all aside to win the U.S. Amateur.
The cream of golf returns to Merion, the classic old place in the Philadelphia bedroom of Ardmore, for the U.S. Open this week and Patton offers this bit of advice — check your egos and drivers at the gate and play the golf course the same way he did.
“Old school golf,” said Patton, then a rising senior at Clemson and now, at 45, tending to the family farm in Fountain Inn.
Precision replaces power at Merion. Finesse is in, brawn is out.
Every player in the Open’s field of 156 knows the formula. Defending champion Webb Simpson talked about how many wedges he will be hitting into greens on the course that measures less than 7,000 yards, and Tiger Woods noted the path to success requires discipline and hitting certain spots on the fairways and greens.
But that can often be easier said than done, especially among the pros who thrive on the power game. Patience often is in short supply.
Although about 400 yards have been added since Patton’s triumph almost 24 years ago, advances in technology means the course will play much the same.
“There will be a lot of birdie opportunities, but there will be a lot of bogey possibilities, too,” Patton said. “The fairways will be narrow and the rough will be extremely tall compared to what (the pros) are generally used to.
“Clubs won’t change; they’ll be hitting the same shots into the greens that we did — if they hit their spots off the tee. Some of the players might not like it, but Merion is one of those little gems, a fantastic golf course that demands a player to play intelligent golf.”
POWER AND PRECISION
The 1989 U.S. Amateur came with a distinct orange flavor; seven of the 312 players — including coach Larry Penley — had Clemson connections, but only Patton qualified for match play.
“Chris did not surprise us,” Penley remembered. “He played very well in the (36-hole) qualifying (sharing third place), and he played amazing golf all week in match play. (The Clemson connection) went up there together, and we hung around to give him a built-in gallery.”
Patton attracted attention in more ways than one. His golf spoke for itself; his stature — 6-foot-1, more than 300 pounds — left fans marveling at his deft touch. How could a big guy hit such delicate shots around the greens? “Finesse in an unlikely package,” one headline writer penned.
“Hand-eye coordination, feel, composure — he had all that,” Penley said. “He putted those greens amazingly well. He didn’t hit driver very much; he just put the ball in play off the tee and once he got on the greens, he rolled the ball very, very well. He had the speeds perfect.”
Patton won four of his six matches against opponents who had won or would win USGA championships. He beat future Mid-Amateur champion Randal Lewis in the first round, then in succession eliminated Tokohiro Nagawaka (1985 Japanese Amateur champion), Michael Podolak (1984 Mid-Am), Kevin Wentworth (college player of the year), Michael Brannan (1971 U.S. Junior) and Danny Green.
His only close call came in the third round against Podolak. Down three holes with five to play, he squared the match on 18 with a clutch 8-foot putt, survived Podolak’s birdie putt to win the first playoff hole and advanced on the second extra hole.
“Obviously, I played extremely well,” Patton said. “I went into the tournament with a lot of confidence with the way I had been playing, and that carried over. I didn’t hit driver very much. We knew we had to play for position in the fairways off the tee. They’re going to have to control the ball and shape their shots.”
The prescription then, he said, is the prescription now.
PATTON CHARMED FANS
Patton stole the show that August week in 1989 and charmed the fans and media. “Charisma,” Penley said.
Award-winning Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon noted that Patton is “admirably unimpressed with himself” and wrote “he looks as though he should be playing defensive tackle instead of draining every eight-foot putt he looks at.” The Wall Street Journal chimed in, and Sports Illustrated, too, and all the golf world would notice in the spring of 1990 at the Masters.
Getting there required Patton to find the game “out of boredom.” He picked up a club for the first time at age 13, developed quickly and won high school championships at Simpsonville’s Hillcrest High. He made All-America at Clemson.
“But I wasn’t the typical junior,” he said. “My family didn’t have the money to send me all over the place to play junior golf.” In fact, he said, he spent the first part of the summer of ’89 working odd jobs to fund his trip to the U.S. Amateur.
His power, coupled with a sparkling short game, made him a “can’t-miss” prospect for the pros, but somehow he did. Injuries, bad breaks and bad luck played roles and he gave up after 14 years in 2004.
“Obviously, I had bigger things in mind when I turned professional, and I had my moments when I felt I could play with anybody,” Patton reflected. “But I never made it full-time on the (PGA Tour) and that was a disappointment. On the other hand, (pro golf) was a shock because I didn’t know what to expect in terms of travel, the lonely times by yourself, doing everything by yourself.
“I’m not a guy to make excuses; I had the opportunity. I put pressure on myself (to succeed) and I lost my love for the game. I lost the fun part. Now that I have been away from the game, I realize what made me play well. When I would go out and laugh and show off and have fun, that’s when I did my best in golf.”
Patton weighs 270 pounds these days, but his waist size has dropped to 42 — 10 inches less than that long ago summer at Merion. Working the farm keeps him busy, but he finds time to instruct youngsters at Fox Run in Fountain Inn or at Shanks Driving Range in Greenville.
“I enjoy that,” he said.
Can the guy who took Merion by storm still play?
“Just a few rounds a year,” Patton said.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Penley said. “He’ll go out and play with the juniors he teaches ,and I’ll get a call from a member who will tell me, ‘Hey, Chris shot 30 on the back nine the other day.’ ”
So, he’s the same guy Bill Lyon wrote about — “admirably unimpressed with himself” — and, yeah, he can still play. The pros at Merion can learn from him this week, too.